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Okanagan Falls, B.C. : History Printer Friendly Version

by DM Wilson
With thanks to Eleanor & Don Walker, Ursala Richardson, Ursula Surtees, Judy Toms, Bruce Cox, Doug Cox, Margaret Ormsby, Mario Lanthier and Lloyd L. Wong, Randall Manuel, Marlene Trenholm, Edwd. Affleck, Geo. F. Cram, and Bob Turner.
Revised 2007/10/29

Railways and Steamships of the Okanagan
Okanagan Falls
Railways and Steamships of the Okanagan

        On October the 4th, 1886, Jas. Reid, J.H. Turner, John Andrew Mara, F.S. Barnard, Robert Patterson Rithet, Thos. Earle, D.M. Eberts, Forbe George Vernon and E.B.C. Hannington were granted letters of incorporation for their Sicamous and Okanagan Railway Company and were soon welcoming investors into their offices on Bastion Street in downtown Victoria. The line’s stock-in-trade: a charter permitting it to run rails from CP’s Mainline at Sicamous down into the new grain and cattle Eden in the Okanagan Valley. Though the charter came with a $200,000 provincial subsidy, J.M. Lambly and the railway’s other principals still lacked the resources to build their road. After lengthy negotiations, in 1890 they finally convinced the CPR to lease their charter—now the Shuswap and Okanagan (S&O). The outfit of Larkin and Paterson won the construction contract and that May gangs in the employ of T.W. Patterson and Company began spiking down 51 miles of track between Sicamous on the Mainline and Okanagan Landing near Vernon, ruining the old Spallumcheen Road in the process. They reportedly laid the last rails down in April of 1891, and by that autumn CPR trains were regularly chuffing into Vernon.1
        Writes Robert D. Turner in his Sternwheelers and Steam Tugs (Sono Nis Press, Victoria, 1984), on May 22nd, 1893, under the supervision of E.G. McKay, workers in CP’s shipyard at Okanagan Landing knocked the blocks from the ways and slid the 540 ton sternwheeler Aberdeen2 into the waters of Okanagan Lake. Operated by the Company’s B.C. Lake and River Steamers department (BCL&RS), she was the first ship CP launched that was not a construction vessel dedicated solely to Company service. Until the CP suspended its Okanagan Lake operation in 1972, the Aberdeen and her companions, the Okanagan, the Kaledan and the 1,800 ton Sicamous, her rivals from other companies and her tug and barge successors, beat their way up and down the Lake, nosing in at any landing where freight awaited, their most distant port-of-call being Penticton, 88 water miles south from The Landing.

        Before the Aberdeen began her career, Captain Shorts in his twin screw-driven Penticton served the settlers along Okanagan Lake’s shores, sailing thrice a week from Okanagan Landing to Okanagan Mission near what is now Kelowna, twice extending his voyage to the Thos. Ellis place at the southern tip of the Lake. There he dropped off supplies and miners bound for the camps at McKinney, Hedley and Fairview, picking up a few waggon loads of selected ores for transfer north to the CPR. In 1892 Ellis laid a townsite and by the time the Aberdeen began calling, what is now the heart of the City of Penticton consisted of Thomas Ellis’s ranchstead with Wilhelmina’s3 little orchard surrounded by a few thousand head of Tom’s ‘69’ branded cattle, a little Catholic church, Alfred H. Wade’s store and a few loads of gold-bearing ore. With the commencement of the Aberdeen’s service, though, J. Thurber raised his small hotel. Constance Lindsay, in her August 1893 article for The Canadian Magazine which Edward L. Affleck thoughtfully includes in his collection entitled Kootenay Pathfinders: Settlement in the Kootenay District 1885-1920 (The Alexander Nicolls Press, Vancouver, 1976), reported of Penticton that “... a more miserable place cannot be conceived of. It is high and dry, dusty and frightfully hot, .... There is a long, low building which is called a ‘hotel’ which is supposed to answer the purpose ... [but] I think that the Penticton townsfolk ... found the hotel uninviting, for I noticed that they, as well as the hotel-keeper, took up their quarters for the night on the [Aberdeen].... The country south from Penticton swarms with rattlesnakes.”
        By 1897 enough of a settlement had arisen at Penticton that, in applying for their railroad charter in the spring of 1897, the principals in the Vancouver, Victoria and Eastern Railway hinted that their line might run through Penticton. The community was thrilled, and land prices soared when Mackenzie and Mann obtained control of the VV&E and announced on June 27th, 1898, that from Penticton eastward and west, construction would begin immediately. It did not and the settlement drifted back into slumber for a dozen years, rousing only to incorporate itself as a Municipality on December 31st, 1908.
        Penticton awoke on July 1st, 1911, to the sound of a shovel full of sod being officially turned. The KVR had finally chosen its route and Penticton would be its headquarters. While Andrew McCulloch and his survey crews engineered a right-of-way east and west from the settlement and began directing the construction of the grade, crews built a barge slip beside the CPR’s boat pier to receive materials, laid out a small yards nearby and began erecting a station and associated hotel, the Incola, on the lakefront.
         Penticton’s first locomotive, KVR No.3, a well used 2-6-0 Mogul, arrived by barge on October 26th, 1912. With its aid, steel was soon glinting on the railbed. By the end of that year, according to R.D. Turner in Steam on the Kettle Valley, the KVR had 2,175 men at work on four fronts. From Merritt south and east and from Midway westward crews built toward Penticton. From Penticton itself men hacked the rail bed into the precipitous slopes of the Okanagan Highlands eastward, and west, skirting rails seven miles around the southern tip of the Lake, others worked into the Thompson Plateau across property owned by the Summerland Development Company of “the King of the Okanagan,” John Moore Robinson, in which president T.G. Shaughnessy had an interest. There crews laboured a year and a half to pitch the biggest bridge on the B.C. portion of CP’s Southern Mainline across the Trout Creek Canyon. When the 450 feet of wooden trestling was finished and the 250-foot steel under-truss span dropped into place,4 McCulloch forced trackage up the Trout Creek. With crews left short-handed5 by the call to arms in the Balkans, by the end of the 1913 season he was at the top of the Plateau at Osprey Lake (3952 feet).
        On October 16th of 1914, despite a brief walk-out by men convinced by Industrial Workers of the World organizers that they were being abused, the section between Midway and Penticton was open for business. While some crews were transferred to the westbound effort, others built new yards and station at South Penticton, about a mile inland from the lakeshore and the wharves. Centred upon a six stalled, turn-table fed roundhouse, it was the KVR’s major facility.
        The last spike in the western section was driven home just outside Princeton on April 21st, 1915 and, with fanfare and a banquet, on May 31st the first east-bound passenger train from Merritt was welcomed into Penticton. But for a 55 mile gap just east of Nelson, CP had its Southern Mainline and the Coast had its long desired direct access to the Kootenays.
        In 1918 the provincial government of John Oliver initiated irrigation projects in the southern Okanagan. Soon water was leading an invasion of fruit trees down the Valley’s bottomlands toward the Boundary. Following irrigation’s southward creep, in 1920 the KVR laid rails from its South Penticton yards two miles south to Skaha, on the lake of the same name. Building barge slips there and at the other end of the lake at Okanagan Falls, the company leased the CPR’s steam tug York, had Captain Otto Estabrooks manœuvre her down the treacherously twisted reach of the Okanagan River between the big lake and Skaha, and commence pushing a small railway barge up and down the latter’s eight-mile length. By 1923, the KVR had extended its line sixteen miles down the Valley through the new Village of Oliver and on some five kilometres to the hamlet of Haynes. Eight years later connecting trackage was spiked down along Skaha’s western shore and the York was sent back to duties on Lake Okanagan.
        CP suspended passenger service on the Lake Okanagan in 1935 and, upon completion of a new one in the South Penticton yards six years later, the KVR removed its lakeshore station. A few years later, the Company tied up its freight boats, choosing to rely on tugs and barges to serve its lake-side customers. Penticton’s old pier was allowed to fall into disrepair. In 1972, CP abandoned the Lake to the Canadian National, which had built wharves for its lake fleet at Kelowna after tying that town into its rail network, writes Doug Cox in S.S. Sicamous—Queen of Okanagan Lake (Skookum Publications, Penticton, B.C., 1995), in September of 1925. CN worked the Lake for only one year longer than CP. With the end of that service Penticton’s waterfront was scoured of industrial remnants and the broad, sandy shore surrendered to sun-bathers. Beached since 1951, the only reminder of Penticton’s days as a transportation hub is the last and largest ship that the CPR launched onto the inland waters of B.C., the steel-hulled Sicamous, now serving as one of Penticton’s museums.
        Lovely Penticton is a railroad town no more. On May 13th, 1989, the last train out of town rolled away westward into the Plateau. It won’t return; the rails were pulled in 1991, the South Yards buried under new construction and the “Special WF” station converted into a community centre. At Summerland, however, about fifteen kilometres north on the 97 from downtown Penticton, the Kettle Valley Steam Railway Heritage Society has preserved some 10 miles of the KVR and uses either one of two locomotives6 to pull a little train up 2.2% grades past “The Giant’s Head” and across the Trout Creek Canyon bridge. This spectacular structure, hanging 234 feet above the creek and spanning over 200 metres, was rebuilt by the Society and ceremoniously reopened on the 17th of September, 1995.
Okanagan Falls

        Having dropped down from Twin Lakes at the top of the Okanagan Valley’s west wall, No.3A joins No.97 at Kaleden Junction and heads south as B.C.’s “Wine Route.” Not five kilometres along, the Highway dives left down a gully cut into the dusty mauve sedimentary rock of the Valley wall’s foundation and then curves right to give travellers a view over Okanagan Falls (341m), the “Dogtown” of yore. Soaking up sunrays to make itself one of the most pleasant natatoria in Canada, Skaha Lake drowses calmly in the Valley’s bottom, its warm waters bathing the bones of Louis Greenwood’s little sternwheeler Greenwood which burned to the plimsoll line and sank at the Falls in 1899. Breaking from its cover at the base of the bluffs below us, the long railway trestle, now fully decked and railing’d as a biking-hiking path, stilts across the near corner of the Lake. Reaching the Valley bottom, the Highway curves again left to leap the Okanagan River on a 1952 concrete-decked bridge. Downstream a couple of hundred metres is little Skaha Lake dam, placed in the mid-’60s to help control the periodic water surges that played havoc with the irrigation system farther south. Drowned beneath the dam’s backwaters are the modest falls which inspired the settlement’s name. Completing its curve to the east beyond the Bridge, the Highway turns into Ninth Avenue as it crosses the Railway’s bare right-of-way which, a few metres to the south, vanishes beneath a batch of new condominiums.
        In the Interior Salish dialect “kwah-ne-ta”—“little falls”—this place was a favourite of the Okanagan Indians for its easy fishing at the now-disappeared falls. The location attracted Michael Koegan who reportedly registered the first pre-emption in this area on March 1st, 1876. Some years later, William Jessup Snodgrass bought a few acres and, dreaming of the great metropolis he would found here, registered a street plan on October 13th, 1893. He built the Lady Alexandra hotel and began a freighting business and the Snodgrass Stage Line which likely jounced down the valley as far as Oroville, Washington, with stops at Camps Fairview and McKinney. The steamboats Naramata and Miramachi, both owned by a Captain Holman, were in service on Skaha by the end of the summer of ‘93. To improve access to the upper valley, Snodgrass had the river channel between Skaha and Okanagan Lake cleared. The river, however, was uncoöperative, collecting snags as quickly as they were removed and remaining forever a twisted, narrow channel into which boats ventured at their peril. Also uncoöperative was Tom Ellis, the owner of the surrounding lands, who was uninterested in Snodgrass’s project, preferring to reserve his acres for cattle and refused to allow the settlement to expand beyond its original plan. Nonetheless, with the arrival of the Bassett family in 1896, enough children lived at the settlement to warrant the commencement of school classes. Though he talked the Post Office into opening a local bureau on October 1st 1898, Snodgrass was destined to be disappointed with his vision of The Falls’ future glory, though it does appear as the settlement farthest south in the Canadian Okanagan on the George F. Cram’s 1903 map entitled Dominion of Canada from the Latest Official Surveys & Data. When the Shatford brothers, Lytton Wilmot and Walter Tyrrel, of Hedley bought Ellis out in 1905 for $405,000, Snodgrass gave up his dreams of empire, sold his holdings to W.B. Cline and Warwick Arnott, moved back to Oregon and never saw the boom brought to the settlement by irrigation and the KVR after the Great War.
        For 60 years trains rumbled across the trestle cutting the corner of Lake Skaha. Fewer and fewer, however, ventured beyond the sawmill in The Falls’ southern suburbs which Weyerhaeuser Canada bought in 1978. Ten years later CP announced that it was suspending service on what by that time it called its Penticton Subdivision, and in the future Weyerhaeuser would be obliged to deliver its lumber by truck to the loading terminal that CP established on its Mainline at Campbell Creek just east of Kamloops. On March 1st the last scheduled train grumbled away northward from The Falls.
        From the Bridge Ninth Avenue carries the Highway eastward past a couple of light-commercial blocks and then hands it off to Main which takes it south through the central business district of Okanagan Falls. Not quite two blocks long, “downtown” is modest. The most imposing structure is the new OK Falls Hotel on the eastern side of Main. Verandah’d white on grey with its neon-signed Cactus Grill café-restaurant-bar, it easily faces down the humble, homier Falls Restaurant on the opposite side of Main. Over coffee, visitors ponder just what esoteric insights geographers and their consultants have glimpsed that gives them the confidence to declare that The Falls sits exactly on the boundary between the upper Sonoran and the Transition environmental zones. The Great American Desert, they claim, ends here.
        The Falls’ main historical attraction is the Bassett House, on the east side of Main beside the Hotel. A plain “prefab” cottage with a few fancy doodahs, it was erected in 1909 by the Bassetts, a family of teamsters and ostlers whose sideline was serving travellers on the stage coaches. Their little abode is now packed with period furniture and personal effects, while the community’s main museum is tucked into the ground floor of what appears to be seniors’ condos built in the yard behind the House.
        A.S. Hatfield acquired Bill Snodgrass’s Oroville stage service from Arnott and Cline around 1914, a natural extension of the South Okanagan Transportation Company which he had formed with Mr. Campbell in 1912. They had soon launched the Cygnet to ply the waters of Skaha, carrying the mails between The Falls and Penticton, and in 1914 floated the Mallard to accompany her.
        Although The Falls remained pretty much a transportation node from which freight was waggoned over the crude roads to Camp McKinney and Camp Fairfield, in 1917 it welcomed a diversification of its economy when the Waterman family got into the commercial production of asparagus, sending the crop not only to the camps and the KVR at Penticton, but also to Okanagan Landing where it was loaded onto the rails of the S&O for transport to the far tables of Calgary. The implementation of the Southern Okanagan Land Company after the Great War brought water and prosperity to Okanagan Falls. Orchards bloomed on the previously sun-burned grasslands and people began to gather to partake of the bounty. The many children required a better school, and in 1932 a two-room building was opened wherein the teachers instructed all grades until 1946 when the students in grade eight and higher began to attend classes in Oliver. Despite the swing of the local economy’s focus to orchardry forty years before, in 1942 the Okanagan Falls Stockbreeders’ Association organized itself and from new pens the next year sent its first shipment to market. In 1947 the community welcomed the addition of 14 houses which were moved in from Granby Consolidated’s mining hamlet of Copper Mountain near Princeton, some 100 km westward on the Crowsnest Highway.
        Just leaving the built-up area of the Falls, the Highway crosses the line of the spur which ran from a switch in the Osoyoos Subdivision mainline diagonally across the Valley to the Weyerhaeuser lumber mill. The CPR received permission on the 20th of July, 1978, to abandon the Osoyoos Subdivision south from the switch. The steel was pulled in 1979. A year later the switch itself was removed and the Sub. renamed the Okanagan Falls Spur. The utility of trucks and the absence of any other steady business for the Railway anywhere along the Kettle Valley Division won CP leave from the National Transportation Agency to abandon the Spur on June 21st, 1990, along with the rest of the Company’s operations in the southern Interior west of Trail. By the next year the Company Yanked the steel and the Spur was gone. Judging by the haste with which it built over the old right-of-way, “OK Falls” does not much miss the Railway. Now in the business of selling real estate to the population overflow from Penticton and trying to get tourists to stop and spend some money, the settlement, still unincorporated, slowly grows
        But two lanes wide with sometime shoulders, the No.3A/97 is a busy highway. The descendant of the all weather waggon trail which had picked its way up the Valley from the Columbia River at Chelan in Washington by 1890, the 97 is now the Okanagan’s major thoroughfare and a province-long artery, tending to choke in this neighbourhood on legions of Pace Arrows, 4x4-hauled Streamliners, and tractor trucks hauling humming reefers and lumber-laden high-boys. Since Freighliner’s decision to move production to its corporate headquarters at Portland, Oregon, in the spring of 2002, gone from the Highway are the piggy-back trains of brand-new Western Star “conventionals” heading south from the old factory in Kelowna.

        Not far south of The Falls is the 20 tent sites of the Okanagan Falls Provincial Campground—showerless, as per usual. On the far bank of the River, the empty railbed of the Osoyoos Sub. awaits conversion into a biking/hiking trail. Keeping to the River’s left bank and nearing Vaseux Lake, the Highway cuts into vineyards. Spilling into the Valley bottom on the right from the heights on the left, vines in orderly down-slope rows expect another sunny day. Until the mid-1980s B.C.’s wine industry was little more than a sour joke in the community of vintners. Since, however, after soil analysis and careful selection of cultivars, it has established itself as a serious contender for the œnophile’s dollar. A widely distributed “Super, Natural British Columbia” guide to the Okanagan-Similkameen promotes “Tours of Abundance” which lists and locates the region’s many vineyards, highlighting those which welcome visitors. Operating in conjunction with the “Tour,” the Okanagan Valley Wine Train runs summertime day-trippers along the old CN tracks between Armstrong at the top of the Valley and Kelowna, in the very heart of the wine country.
        Past the bird sanctuary and the tiny Provincial Campground at the upper end of Vaseux Lake, the valley wall moves closer, overhanging, crowding the Highway to edges of the Lake’s eastern shore. Ahead is one of B.C.’s most photographed vistas. Rising 850 feet to define the southern limits of the Lake, McIntyre—formerly, “Gallagher”—Bluff, the vertical wall of Mount Keogan, admires its rippled reflection on the mirroring water. Eyed by a quiet mother Mallard and a high-flying bald eagle, an evening canoeist, looking for rarer birds to observe, noses her craft noiselessly through the tall rushes while, faintly echoed by the Bluff, some guy’s treasured old two-cylinder Model “D” John Deere pop-pop-pops around unseen in an orchard.
        A stretch south of the Lake remains un-irrigated and, restrained from invading the Highway by five unfriendly strands of barbed wire, the native desert vegetation—sumac, sage, and tough, squat greasewood all underlain by yellow bunch grass—gives travellers a glimpse into a past before the Whiteman impressed his green thumb into the Valley’s soil. This is the Vaseux Lake Conservation Area, 777 hectares dedicated to preventing the extinction of five-toed kangaroo rats, blue-tailed lizards, prairie chicken and burrowing owls. Locals are quite proud of a herd of California Bighorn Sheep, but summer visitors shouldn’t waste too much time scanning the ‘scarps for them; like the goats in the Similkameen, they come down only in the winter. As for the owls, none have been seen since the late 1970s, and re-introduction has thus far met with failure.
        Past Vaseux Lake, at the base of McIntyre Bluff, a big sky-blue steel structure sits athwart the River to the west of the Highway. This is the McIntyre, or Intake, Dam, which since 1921 has robbed the River of half of its waters, angling them off to the left in a canal under-passing the Highway via a tight 1955 bridge. Cresting the low mound of moraine at Vaseux’s south end, the Highway twists itself through the vale between the Bluff and its easterly counterpart to run through the settlement of Gallagher Lake, an unincorporated wide spot with two motels and a Kampgrounds of America under the Ponderosa pines to the left.
        This is the Land of Campgrounds. On lands unsuitable for vineyards, fruit orchards that once provided their owners with a modest living now pay off big during holiday season as families of two-week wanderers descend upon the Okanagan in RVs festooned with canoes and bicycles and flags of towels and swimming trunks flapping dry in the breeze.
        A few kilometres south of Gallagher, the Highway hooks right to cross the River on a narrow, ancient wood-decked bridge set on log pilings. Immediately beyond, the old Railway right-of-way southbound has been paved into a bike path and levies the River’s right bank down to Oliver. Quiet and peaceful, stunningly beautiful in the autumn when the ground-hugging sumac flutter scarlet and orange leaves under the fuchsia roman candles of Lombardy poplars and yellow and crimson maples, it is a wonderful way to enter Oliver.


  1. Margaret A. Ormsby, in her Masters of Arts thesis of April, 1931, A Study of the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia, disputes this date, claiming that the completed line was not opened for business until May 12th, 1892. !NB: To return to this end-note’s origin in the main text, left-click browser’s “Back” arrow

  2. named for the Governor-general of Canada, Lord Aberdeen who, at the time, had bought a large tract of land at Vernon which he was turning into fruit orchards. !NB: To return to this end-note’s origin in the main text, left-click browser’s “Back” arrow

  3. The Ellises’ daughter, Eileen, married the 45 year-old Calgary meat packer and, later, Senator, Patrick Burns, in 1901. !NB: To return to this end-note’s origin in the main text, left-click browser’s “Back” arrow

  4. The highest box girder bridge at the time in North America writes Hal Reigger in his The Kettle Valley and its Railways. !NB: To return to this end-note’s origin in the main text, left-click browser’s “Back” arrow

  5. The Calgary Herald, as noted by Hal Reigger in his above-mentioned work, reported on August 1st, 1913, that 3,000 men were employed working on the KVR at several points along its length. !NB: To return to this end-note’s origin in the main text, left-click browser’s “Back” arrow

  6. An ex-Mayo Lumber Company 1924 forty-three ton, two-truck Shay, and a 2-8-0 made by the Montreal Locomotive Works in 1912 and formerly owned by the CPR as 3916 until rebuilt in 1929 and re-numbered 3716. !NB: To return to this end-note’s origin in the main text, left-click browser’s “Back” arrow

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